On June 19, 2009, when shortstop Josh Wilson was claimed off waivers by the Seattle Mariners, fans where absolutely…whelmed. Why would anyone care? He was last seen hitting .105 for the San Diego Padres; they were more than happy to let him go.
Nearly a year later, on June 7, 2010, Wilson is batting .301/.357/.417, good for a .352 wOBA. UZR says that Wilson has saved 1.3 runs with his glove already this year in just 30 games. WAR says that Wilson has been worth .9 wins this season. That’s good for third on the team behind Franklin Gutierrez’s 2.3 mark and Ichiro’s 2.2.
So how is this career .240 hitter suddenly putting up above-average numbers at age 29, an age where one would expect a player to have been in his prime for 2-3 years already? If Wilson was really this good, shouldn’t he have been this good before now?
Well, there are a few players who would be considered “late bloomers” that can give Josh Wilson some hope of being a successful player in the long-term. First, Mariners fans should know Raul Ibanez well. At age 28, Ibanez hit and abysmal .229/.301/.329. That slugging percentage is something a little leaguer wouldn’t be happy with. Then, at age 29 Ibanez decided to learn how to hit, and put up a season line of .280/.353/.495, good for a 115 OPS+.
Jayson Werth of the Phillies also followed a similar career path. The right fielder hit just .234/.338/.374 in his age 26 season in 2005. A wrist injury forced him to miss all of the 2006 season, so when he entered 2007 on a minor-league deal with the Phillies, his shot at having a productive career as a starting player looked just about over.
But, much like Josh Wilson, Werth was forced into starting duty thanks to an injury to the starter blocking him. Werth seized his opportunity, batting .298/.404/.459, and earned himself a starting job for 2008. Werth had 25 career home runs through his age 26 season. Since then, he’s hit 78 homers and become an all-star.
So while Wilson’s path to success is still an uphill climb, it’s not impossible. Let’s take a look at what Wilson is specifically responsible for, and see how that bodes for his future success. The amount of line drives he’s hit has steadily gone up each year. In 2007, a staggeringly low 12.7% of his balls in play were line drives. After spending 2008 in the minors, he smacked an above average 19.6% line drives in 2009, and this year that rate is an outstanding 21.8%.
He’s also striking out far less than usual. His career strikeout rate is 20.6%, but he’s brought that down to 15.5% this year. Wilson is also taking more walks than usual; that rate has jumped from 5.7% to 7.1%. He’s also making contact 86% of the time, compared to 84% for his career. A lot of this could be stemmed from the fact that he is swinging at pitches in the zone 65% of the time, 4% more than his career numbers. So while he is not really swinging much more often overall, he is swinging at pitches in the zone, which are generally more hittable pitches.
So what’s the verdict? It’s hard to say at this point. Wilson has only had 112 plate appearances so far, which is too small of a sample to draw any concrete conclusions from. However, line drives, walks, and strikeouts generally stabilize quickly, so while it is possible that Wilson’s success is nothing but small sample size noise, the way he’s getting his results are encouraging. His process is good, anyway, so it bodes well.
Maybe Wilson will go hitless in his next 20 at-bats, rendering all of this research moot. But his process at the plate should give Mariners fans some hope that the organization has found a diamond in the rough. If Wilson can be even a slightly below average hitter at shortstop, the Mariners have found a very valuable player. Jack Wilson may be making $5 million a year, but if he wants to be the Mariners’ starting shortstop after returning from his injury, he’s going to have to earn it. The job now looks like it’s Josh Wilson’s to lose.